Understanding needed between warring generations

What would you take to a desert island? A library and cheese. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
What would you take to a desert island? A library and cheese. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
When I was a student, I would walk from the Botany Department to my flat on George St. Every day, I passed Scribes Second Hand Books.

I would allow myself to go in once a week, on Fridays. I can still smell the books and feel the pleasure of hours lost browsing. Some weeks, I would select easy and comfortable books, others, I would challenge myself with something more obscure — never too obscure, I am boringly mainstream.

Dr Anna Campbell
Dr Anna Campbell
I have never lost the joy of reading and hanker someone asking me the question: what would you take to a desert island? My answer, a library and cheese.

Of course, not all books are created equal and there are authors I buy the moment their book comes out. Sally Rooney is one of those authors. Her latest book Beautiful World, Where Are You does not disappoint, in fact it’s a gem and since reading, it has had me pondering generational differences.

My children and the characters in Rooney’s book are brought up in a different time to me. They’re digital natives, living their lives in the crazy bubble of social media. They are facing climate destruction, ridiculously expensive housing, viral pandemics and massive disparities in wealth.

How’s this for a crazy fact — and a segue from Rooney’s book — in the US, The Economic Policy Institute estimates that CEO compensation has grown 1322% since 1978, while typical worker compensation has risen just 18%.

In 2020, CEOs of the top 350 firms in the US made $24.2million (NZ$33.8million), on average 351 times more than a typical worker. Frankly, how can any generation make sense of that?

My parents are part of the baby-boomer generation, brought up by parents who lived through world wars and food shortages, shaped forever by their environment. Borrowing money for assets only, paying off mortgages as fast as possible, yet limited so much in what they could do in terms of gender stereotypes.

Women had the choice of secretarial school, nursing or teaching and were often expected to stop work as soon as they were married. Men carried the load of being the breadwinner and few cooked or cleaned. My father was an oddball on the cooking front. His Indian curries were legendary, even if he was a little heavy-handed with the spices. My mother did not want my career path to be as limited as hers. I was given equal opportunities to my brothers, encouraged into maths and science. The world was my oyster. I grew up, quite literally with the mantra, ‘‘girls can do anything’’.

Nowadays, as a geneticist, I spend a lot of time thinking about ‘‘GXE’’, genotype X environment. In the world of genetics, about 10-20% of the variation of most complex traits is attributed to genes, the rest of the variation can be attributed to environmental influence — showing just how important our environment is in shaping who we become and how we behave.

Generation to generation, we despair and worry for the next generation.

Generations rally against each other. Perhaps, we don’t do enough to truly understand the environmental influences each of us has lived through. If I was a teenager now, I would struggle with the social cues and language of modern teens. Similarly, my own children would be lost in my teenage world of phones with cords and parents listening nearby.

Yet, despite all the tension, more remains the same than is different. Let me leave you with a wonderful passage from Rooney’s novel — strangely uplifting in this chaotic world we find ourselves in.

“Maybe we're just born to love and worry about the people we know, and to go on loving and worrying even when there are more important things we should be doing. And if that means the human species is going to die out, isn't it in a way a nice reason to die out, the nicest reason you can imagine? Because when we should have been reorganising the distribution of the world's resources and transitioning collectively to a sustainable economic model, we were worrying about sex and friendship instead. Because we loved each other too much and found each other too interesting. And I love that about humanity, and in fact it's the very reason I root for us to survive — because we are so stupid about each other.”

■ Anna Campbell is the co-founder of Zestt Wellness, a nutraceutical company and a partner of AbacusBio Ltd, an agri-technology company.

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